Foes Call It a Disguised Resort, Owner Says It’s a Campground


The campground that developer Irwin (Red) Lachman wants to build near Malibu would be a humdinger.

A brochure describes it as a New Age retreat, an outdoor study hall for reading the great books and a research lab for environmental education.

It is to have a restaurant, state-of-the-art fitness center, tennis and basketball courts, two swimming pools, an arts and crafts pavilion and outdoor amphitheater.


But do not bother to bring a pup tent.

For accommodations, the 93-acre Latigo Ranch Resort in the Santa Monica Mountains is to offer tent cabins complete with kitchen and bath for up to $125 a night.

Promoters hail it as a prototype for camping resorts of the future.

Critics say it is an environmental disaster masquerading as a campground.

Now that Los Angeles County officials have approved it, dropping a commitment to conduct public hearings, opponents are angry. It marks the county’s second flip-flop on the development in less than a year.

“This project by any other name would never fly,” said Steve Best, whose house is near the site along Latigo Canyon Road two miles from the Pacific Ocean. “To call it a campground is outrageous.”


Best heads a group of residents who fear that Latigo Ranch will bring increased traffic, noise and the threat of fire. Theirs is an isolated community surrounded by parkland, where residents are accustomed to seeing deer and other animals.


Lachman, the developer, dismisses them as a small group who want to keep the property for themselves.

“They just don’t want to see anything built there, in my opinion,” he said.

Lachman insists that the project is environmentally sound and will not diminish the beauty of the rugged terrain.

Plans call for less than 10,000 cubic yards of grading, buildings are to cover less than 2% of the land, and nearly half the property--including an environmentally sensitive habitat area--is to be off limits to any development.


But the neighbors are not the only ones critical of the project and the county’s handling of it.

At the heart of the issue is the county’s designation of the development--with its planned facilities for 400 guests and staff--as a “campground.”

State Sen. Tom Hayden (D-Santa Monica) has called classifying the project as a campground a “clever linguistic tango” on the part of planning officials to avoid requiring the developer to obtain a conditional use permit and prepare an environmental impact report.

Each would have required extensive public hearings.

Opponents say the permit should have been required because the zoning for the property dictates a permit for projects that include such features as dining facilities, guest ranches, health resorts and recreation clubs.

The county planner who reviewed the project in 1991 concluded as much.

But a month later her boss, planning administrator John Schwarze, exempted the developer from the requirement, citing a Xzoning provision that allows exemptions for “campgrounds and accessory structures.”

“Some campground,” Best scoffed. “Who ever heard of a tent with a refrigerator?”

Schwarze’s action might have elicited an immediate outcry from opponents, except that they did not learn about it until shortly before the state Coastal Commission considered the proposal in November, 1992.

“Since (Schwarze) had removed the need for a (conditional use permit), there was no public hearing, and no notification about what was going on,” Best said. “It was strictly a closed-door type procedure.”

The coastal panel--impressed by Lachman’s pledge to make the resort available to inner-city youngsters--approved the project after the developer’s lawyer testified that the county had conducted an environmental review.

An alternate commissioner from Northern California was the lone dissenter.

Opponents, who had insisted to no avail before the Coastal Commission that the county had done no meaningful environmental work on the project, cried foul.

Enter county Supervisor Ed Edelman, whose district includes Malibu. In the face of publicity about the handling of the matter, he took the unusual step last June of directing county lawyers to investigate.

Meanwhile, opponents won a sympathetic ear from the Sierra Club’s Santa Monica Mountains Task Force, the city of Malibu and officials of a resource conservation district.

The Santa Monica Mountains Conservancy, whose board had informally endorsed the resort earlier, did an about-face, expressing serious environmental concerns.

Soon county officials changed their minds.

In July, deputy county counsel Charles Moore, reversing an earlier legal opinion, announced that the developer should have been required to obtain the conditional use permit.

Lachman, the developer, threatened to sue the county. He also hired Alma Fitch, Edelman’s former chief of staff, as a lobbyist.

Then, this spring, came the big surprise.

In March, as the county Regional Planning Commission prepared to reconsider the project, one of its members--Bob Ryan--concluded that because the Coastal Commission had approved it, it must be environmentally sound and the county should not stand in the way.

His colleagues agreed.


Afterward, Moore, the county lawyer, issued a third opinion, this one arguing, like the first, that no conditional use permit should have been required.

A mid-level planner in the Planning Department signed off on the project the last week of April.

Opponents were outraged.

“It’s a classic shell game,” said Greg Aftergood, a lawyer for the homeowner group. “They go before (the) Coastal (Commission) and say the county did its work. At the county, they say it must be OK because Coastal approved it. You get the picture.”

Edelman, who, like Moore, declined to be interviewed, issued a statement saying he was “surprised and disappointed” by the Planning Department’s decision.

It is small consolation to detractors.

“You can view it a couple of ways,” neighbor Janet Katz said. “Either (Edelman’s) heart was never in it, or else since he’s a lame duck about to leave office he just doesn’t care anymore.”